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Chief Justice Roberts Rebukes Sen. Chuck Schumer's Remarks About 2 Justices


There were sharp words at the U.S. Senate today.


MITCH MCCONNELL: No matter the intention, words carrying the apparent threat of violence can have horrific unintended consequences.

SHAPIRO: That's Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticizing Chuck Schumer, the Senate's top Democrat, over remarks Schumer made yesterday in front of the Supreme Court about two justices appointed by President Trump. Schumer's comments about Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch also drew a rare rebuke from Chief Justice John Roberts. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg is here to explain.

Hi, Nina.


SHAPIRO: Where does this story begin?

TOTENBERG: Well, it really started with President Trump tweeting attacks on the judge in the Roger Stone case and even the jury forewoman. And then he tweeted that Supreme Court Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor - liberal justices - should recuse themselves from all Trump-related cases before the Supreme Court because he claimed they are biased against him.

SHAPIRO: Then what happened yesterday?

TOTENBERG: Well, yesterday, the Supreme Court was hearing this huge abortion case in which the court is being asked to either start down the road to reversing Roe v. Wade or to stick to its abortion precedents. And then Senator Schumer was out on the sidewalk addressing a large and pretty raucous group of abortion rights activists, his constituents - big time for the coming election - and he said this.


CHUCK SCHUMER: I want to tell you, Gorsuch, I want to tell you, Kavanaugh, you have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price.

TOTENBERG: And, of course, Justice Kavanaugh said something similar to that to Democrats during his confirmation hearing. But Schumer's words prompted a rare and stunning rebuke from Chief Justice Roberts, who called the remarks not only inappropriate but dangerous. And today, Schumer made sort of a semi-apology.


SCHUMER: Now, I should not have used the words I used yesterday. They didn't come out the way I intended to. But in no way was I making a threat. I'm from Brooklyn. We speak in strong language.

SHAPIRO: You said the chief justice's comment was rare and stunning. How unusual is it?

TOTENBERG: It's very unusual. He chastised Trump once in 2018. But, you know, we've never had a president who keeps attacking both the lower courts and the Supreme Court in tweets, in press conferences. And the problem here for the chief justice is that he rebuked Schumer, but he didn't say anything when Trump attacked two liberal and female justices just days ago.

SHAPIRO: Any idea why Roberts didn't speak then?

TOTENBERG: You know, this sort of points out the very difficult position he finds himself in. He keeps giving speeches in which he talks about the courts as nonpolitical at the same time that Mitch McConnell and Trump crow all the time about stacking the courts with true conservative believers. And this is not a message that the chief justice wants to convey. He's a judge. But he doesn't have political advisers. And on the two major occasions when he's popped off like this, I think that - and this is me talking - that he basically just got mad.

So in 2018, he chastised Trump. And then yesterday, there was this very fraught abortion case. It was very contentious in the arguments. And Roberts finds out about these Schumer remarks, and he issues this statement without mentioning Trump's remarks about Ginsburg and Sotomayor. And there's nobody at the court, I think, who would say, you know, hey, Chief, you need to add that, otherwise you're going to run into trouble - nobody to warn him.

SHAPIRO: This year and four years ago, the High Court were big issues in the presidential race. The court itself usually tries to stay out of politics. Do you think that's changing?

TOTENBERG: I don't think that they want to be in politics. It doesn't seem to turn out well for the chief justice when he tries to intervene in some way because among other things, in the end, he doesn't get the last word. He just gets dragged down into the political muck. When he rebuked Trump in 2018, Trump tweeted back basically, no, Chief Justice, nanny nanny, boo boo, you're wrong.

SHAPIRO: Trump tweeted nanny nanny, boo boo?

TOTENBERG: No. The nanny nanny, boo boo was Nina.

SHAPIRO: All right.

TOTENBERG: And the court does end up being politicized, whether the chief justice likes that or not.

SHAPIRO: NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, thank you.

TOTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.